MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin said Friday it is open to discussing a possible prisoner swap involving American basketball star Brittney Griner but he strongly warned Washington not to make the matter public.
Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympian and eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after police at the Moscow airport said they found vapor cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
A judge was convicted the 31-year-old athlete Thursday for drug possession and trafficking and sentenced her to nine years in prison. The politically charged case comes amid high tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military action in Ukraine.
In an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, would be freed.
Lavrov and Blinken were both in Cambodia on Friday for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Blinken didn’t even glance at his Russian counterpart as they took their seats at an East Asia Summit.
Lavrov told reporters that Blinken did not try to contact him while they were attending the ASEAN meeting.
“There was only one person separating us at the discussion table, but I didn’t feel his desire to catch me. My buttons are all in place,” he said when asked about Washington’s statement that Blinken would try to button Lavrov up for a quick interaction in Phnom Penh.
Lavrov said Moscow was “ready to discuss” a prisoner exchange, but that the issue should only be discussed through a special Russia-US channel that US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to set up when they met in Geneva in June 2021.
“If the Americans try again to engage in public diplomacy and make strong statements about their intention to take certain steps, it is their business, I would even say their problem,” Lavrov said. “Americans often find it difficult to keep agreements for quiet and professional work.”
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the same point more harshly, saying that “the US has already made mistakes, trying to solve such problems through ‘microphone diplomacy.’ They don’t get resolved that way.”
He also stressed that any discussions about a potential trade would have to be conducted through the confidential channels previously established by Putin and Biden during last year’s summit.
“Such mechanisms exist, but they will be called into question if the discussion continues in the public domain,” Peskov said. He said: “If we discuss any nuances related to the issue of exchange through the media, there will never be an exchange.”
People familiar with the U.S. proposal said it envisions Griner and Whelan being swapped for a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiring to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.
The call between Blinken and Lavrov marked the highest known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, underscoring the public pressure the White House has faced to release Griner.
Griner was arrested on her way back to play for a team in Russia, where she has been competing since 2014. Blinken said Friday that her conviction and sentence “compounds the injustice that has been done to her.”
“It brings into focus our very significant concern about Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of illegal detentions to advance its own agenda by using individuals as political pawns,” he said.
On Thursday, Biden denounced the Russian judge’s verdict and sentence as “unacceptable” and said he would continue to work to bring Griner and Whelan home.
David Rising in Phnom Penh, Cambodia contributed to this report.
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